One day after standing in front of a sold-out crowd of his constituents and professing the changes for the better he's seen in McCracken County during his tenure, Judge-Executive Van Newberry stood in his office reading a grand jury indictment with his name on it.
"This is the first time I am seeing it," Newberry said Friday afternoon, shaking his head. "This is shocking."
Newberry and Deputy Judge-Executive Doug Harnice were indicted on charges of tampering with public records as a result of an investigation that began last summer into allegedly unlawful changes to the county's zoning maps. Paducah attorney Burton "Dell" Washburn brought allegations to light of improper changes in April. McCracken County officials asked the Kentucky Attorney General's Office to investigate, which led to special prosecutor G.L. Ovey presenting evidence to a grand jury for three days in December.
The indictment was returned Friday just after noon.
"Certainly an indictment doesn't mean you're guilty," Newberry said. "It just means that a group of people - not even a unanimous group of people - decided that there probably should be a trial. Certainly, we are innocent in this. Certainly, this is not true."
Newberry said he wasn't notified of the indictment being returned.
Both Newberry and Harnice will be represented by attorney Will Kautz. Tampering with public records is a Class D felony and subject to a sentence of one to five years in jail.
Harnice did not comment Friday afternoon about the allegations in the indictment. He and Newberry said that they would like to ask for an expedited trial to settle the matter as quickly as possible. Newberry had in the past contended that the zoning changes were the result of a computer glitch, but modified that stance Friday in his office.
"The city had drawn a map, and when they did they drew it incorrectly," Newberry said. "We asked them to correct the map and that was the end of this. I think I did what a judge-executive should do when they see something that wasn't done right and something that costs the taxpayers money.
"There was an original zoning map. The city tried to translate that map to a bigger map and when they did so, they got the lines off. They had zoning lines going through people's houses. Instead of the zoning line going down the property line, they were 10 feet off of the property line. We simply asked the city to correct it."
City of Paducah spokeswoman Pam Spencer declined to comment, citing the pending criminal case.
Newberry said the city corrected most of the map. When asked if he and Harnice corrected the rest of the map, he said "not at that time."
The matter came to public attention after Washburn discovered that property he owned had been rezoned without the required legal notice and government approvals. Further research led him to the conclusion that hundreds of county parcels had been illegally rezoned. County Attorney Mike Murphy reviewed Washburn's work and concluded there were irregularities.
By law, if any changes in zoning maps are proposed, the county must notify property owners, advertise the proposed zoning changes, hold public hearings, and get approval from the planning commission and the fiscal court.
Former Geographic Information Systems coordinator Joe Primicias said that Newberry gave him a map with new lines shortly after Newberry took office in 2007 and asked for the changes to be made. Primicias said he made the changes but openly questioned whether the process was legal. The indictment indicates the changes took place in a two-year period, between January 2007 and December 2008.
Newberry said he will definitely still file for re-election. He has not done so, but said he plans to file by the Jan. 28 deadline. He is asking for an expedited trial to make sure the matter is cleared up by then.
Ovey said: "Whatever they ask for, we will try to accommodate. Of course, there's discovery time frames and things of that nature, but I can understand why they would ask for it to be quicker."
Newberry and Harnice will both stay in their positions, Newberry said. State law allows elected officials to keep their post until they've exhausted the appeals process.
County Commissioner Jerry Beyer said he has the utmost faith in the judicial system of McCracken County, and noted he is awaiting the outcome of a trial. Commissioner Zana Renfro said she doesn't want anything to stand in the way of good government in McCracken County, and hopes the matter is cleared up as soon as possible. Commissioner Ronnie Freeman plans to address the issue with Newberry and Harnice.
"The news is very troubling," Freeman said, "but in the criminal process, you're innocent until proven guilty. I am, however, deeply concerned about the integrity and effective operation of our county government, and will be speaking to the judge-executive and deputy judge-executive about these issues."
Ovey said he asked for Newberry and Harnice to be summoned to court, rather than arrested, as there was little to no flight risk involved. The court agreed, he said. Both will be arraigned at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.
Contact Corianne Egan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8652 or follow @CoriEgan on Twitter.
VOTER posted on: Saturday, January 11, 2014 4:34 PM
Title: McCracken Judge-Executive Van Newberry
This elected official beats the drum of saving the County money. He may have stepped over a Dollar to save a Dime if he redrew the zoning map himself. There are Procedures and Laws that are in place to protect the public. The justice system should be able to find guilt or innocence in this case. The flight risk should have been assessed at the time of setting a bond amount. The arrest and booking of Mr. Newberry should have taken place like every other person in McCracken Co.
Who is paying for his lawyer? Has or will he spend any County paid time while working on his defense in this case? He should be docked time (pay) for any time spent on this case. What a waste of tax payers money if we are paying his salary while he prepares to defend himself in court. Has this elected official used County resources to include staff, computers, stationary, phones , transportation etc. toward the criminal proceedings and defense of same.
It seems that being McCracken Judge-Executive Mr. Newberry would have oversight Mr. Harnice actions while on duty.
Where does the Buck stop?
The McCracken County residents deserve better and open elected officials.